Oct 072013
 

A version of this post first appeared on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust blog on 9 May 2013.

7 May 2013 was the 152nd anniversary of the birth of the Bengali creative genius and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. This year is also the centenary of Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We celebrated the occasion at Shakespeare’s Birthplace on 4 May 2013, two weeks after the Shakespeare birthday celebrations.

tagore-ceremony-pic

Board in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace announcing the ceremony

I had outlined the connection between the two Bards and presented the programme for the afternoon in my blog post Two bards’ birthdays. The annual tradition of celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary by the bust in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace was started by my parents and their Bengali cultural group Prantik in 1997, the year after the bust was installed in the garden.

This year, the event attracted many people, including HE Dr Jaimini Bhagwati, the High Commissioner of India to the UK, and HE Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the UK.

As High Commissioner Bhagwati noted in his introduction, the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are songs which were written by Tagore.

high-commissioner-tagore-ceremony

HE Dr J Bhagwati,
High Commissioner of India

With the help of Shakespeare Aloud! actors Jennifer Hodges and Jenny Jenkins, we gave the first performance of Tagore’s Nobel Prize in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, by the bust of Tagore. The show explained, through poems and songs by Tagore, how he came to win the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The opening poem was recited in Bengali by Mousumi Basu, who was also one of the singers. The other singers were Supratik Basu, Chhaya Biswas, Kaberi Chatterjee and Tirthankar Roy. We were accompanied on esraj by Tirthankar Roy.

Of course, behind the scenes, there had been weeks of preparation by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust team: Dr Diana Owen (its Director), Julia Howells, Jennifer Stone (Shakespeare Aloud!), Chloe Malendewicz (Operations manager) and Charles Rogers (Centre manager).

Tagore’s Nobel Prize recalls how Rabindranath Tagore was invited to London by the painter William Rothenstein, a friend of Rabindranath’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore. In July 1912, Rothenstein introduced Rabindranath to his literary friends, including W.B. Yeats. They became mesmerised by Rabindranath’s English Gitanjali.

By February 1913, Tagore had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by Thomas Sturge Moore, a member of the Royal Society of London. Meanwhile, 97 members of the Royal Society had nominated Thomas Hardy.

tagore-ceremony-pic-two

Me narrating Tagore’s Nobel Prize
in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

By September 1913, members of the Swedish Academy of the Nobel Committee were considering awarding the Nobel Prize to Emile Faguet, a French literary historian and moralist. However, a letter by Swedish poet and novelist Verner von Heidenstam (who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature himself) convinced them to give the Prize to Tagore:

“I read them with deep emotion and I cannot recall having seen for decades anything comparable in lyric poetry… and if ever a poet may be said to possess the qualities which entitle him to a Nobel Prize, he is precisely the man… we should not pass him by… the privilege has been granted us to discover a great name before it has time to be paraded for years up and down the columns of the daily newspapers. If this discovery is to be utilized we must not delay and lose our chance by waiting another year.”

We concluded the performance by moving next to the bust of Tagore and singing two Tagore songs which are usually sung on his birth anniversary.

tagore-ceremony-pic-three

Singing by the bust of Tagore
in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

After a break for tea and a chance to look at the Tagore section of the ‘Shakespeare Treasures’ exhibition, HE Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the Bangladesh High Commissioner, launched the CD collection of all 2,222 songs in Tagore’s Gitobitan (the compendium of his songs) and presented a framed portrait of Tagore to the Shakespeare Birthplace. He then gave this excellent introduction to the UK premiere of our film version of Chitrangada.

You can watch Chitrangada here.

In his introduction, High Commissioner Quayes also mentioned the other two dance-dramas by Tagore: Chandalika and Shyama. Our film versions of these dance-dramas had their world premieres in Stratford in 2011 and 2009, respectively. Chitrangada completes the Tagore dance film trilogy.

You can watch Chandalika here.

You can watch Shyama here.

May 012013
 
Painting by Rabindranath Tagore: Three witches from Macbeth

Painting by Rabindranath Tagore: Three witches from Macbeth

On April 23, (with a little help from our friends AJ and Melissa Leon) people all over the world celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday. Those who used Twitter to wish Shakespeare a Happy Birthday included Stephen Fry, Arianna Huffington and Geri Halliwell.

Shakespeare’s birthday is certainly one I cannot miss, since it happens to be my birthday too. It is also St George’s Day – and you can imagine that I have supported calls to make St George’s Day a national holiday for years, but to no avail … !

Next week, on May 7, it will be Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. Apart from becoming known as ‘the Bard of Bengal’ for his major impact on Bengali literature, Tagore was quite strongly influenced by Shakespeare. One of the tasks he had been given by a tutor at the age of 13 was to translate Macbeth into Bengali. This probably contributed to his deep respect for Shakespeare’s work.

We came across this painting of the Three witches from Macbeth at an exhibition of Tagore’s paintings in Bruges last year, where our film versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas Shyama and Chandalika were shown at the Cinema Novo festival. The collection of paintings had been brought together by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the exhibition was arranged by the Indian Embassy in Brussels.

In 1995, the then Indian High Commissioner, Dr L M Singhvi, arranged for a bronze bust of Tagore by Kolkata sculptor Debabrata Chakraborty to be installed in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. The bust was dedicated in its current position on 20 September 1996. Flowers were laid by Jyoti Basu (then Chief Minister of West Bengal), Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (then Cultural Affairs Minister of West Bengal), Dr L M Singhvi and Professor Stanley Wells (then Chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace).

My parents were among those who attended the ceremony. When the then Director of the Indian Cultural Centre in London had told my father that he hoped that there would be a regular celebration at the bust, my father promised to make sure that Tagore’s birthday would be celebrated at the bust each year.

So on Saturday May 4, with the kind help of the Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Dr Diana Owen, and her team, we will be continuing this annual tradition started by my parents and their group Prantik in 1997.

This year, the programme will be as follows:

Tagore Nobel centenary celebrations at Shakespeare’s Birthplace – 4 May

2.30pm Ceremony around Tagore’s bust in the garden at Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Introduction by the High Commissioner of India, His Excellency Dr J Bhagwati.

Tagore’s Nobel Prize – a show telling the story of how Tagore came to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, through his poetry and songs. I will be narrating the story, the English poems will be presented by Shakespeare Aloud! actors John Robert Partridge and Jennifer Hodges, the Bengali poetry and songs will be presented by Mousumi & Supratik Basu, Chhaya Biswas and Kaberi Chatterjee. We will be accompanied on esraj by Tirthankar Roy.

3.30pm Tagore archive exhibition

4pm UK film premiere: Chitrangada

Introduction by the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, His Excellency Mohamed Mijarul Quayes.

Chitrangada (90 minutes) – Our authentic, colourful, feature film version of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, 1936 dance-drama with an ensemble cast featuring leading dancers, singers and musicians from Tagore’s home town of Santiniketan, India. Perhaps best described as a cross between opera and ballet, Chitrangada was part of Tagore’s campaign to encourage women to have be given a greater role in society. It was based on his earlier play Chitra, which Tagore had directed and designed for a production at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1920.

Kaberi Chatterjee stars as Princess Chitrangada, with the singing voice of Manini Mukhopadhyay. Sourav Chatterjee is Arjun, with the singing voice of Jahar Kumar Dutta, and Nibedita Sen is Modon, with the singing voice of Ritwik Bagchi.

The dance director and production designer is Shubhra Tagore. The music director is Bulbul Basu.

The film completes the Tagore dance film trilogy of authentic, widescreen film versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas, the others being Chandalika (1938) and Shyama (1939). Elements from Chitrangada were included in the promotional trailers and videos created for UNESCO’s Tagore, Neruda & Césaire programme. Chitrangada had its world premiere in Brussels in September 2012.

The film will be followed by a Question & Answer session with Kaberi Chatterjee and me.

6pm End

Tagore Nobel centenary celebrations at Shakespeare’s Birthplace – 5-6 May

During the rest of the bank holiday weekend, the Shakespeare Aloud! actors will be including poems by Tagore in their performances in the garden. One of them will be the poem which Tagore wrote in 1916 for the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death:

When by the far-away sea your fiery disk appeared from behind the unseen, O Poet, O Sun.
England’s horizon felt you near her breast, and took you to be her own.
She kissed your forehead, caught you in the arms of her forest branches.
Hid you behind her mist mantle and watched you in the green sward where fairies love to play among the meadow flowers.
A few early birds sang your hymn of praise, while the rest of the woodland choir were asleep.
Then at the silent beckoning of the Eternal you rose higher and higher till you reached the mid sky, making all quarters of heaven your own.
Therefore, at this moment, after the end of centuries, the palm groves by the Indian sea raise their tremulous branches to the sky murmuring your praise.

Jan 012013
 

Wordpress.com 2012 blog statistics image

So 2012 is over. If you click on the above image, you’ll find the statistics for my blog in 2012 (courtesy of wordpress.com and Jetpack).

Just to give you an overview, my blog had about 9,200 views during the year, of which just over 4,000 were in September. My most popular post was actually one I’d written in 2010 about our experience of watching the film Julie & Julia ! The next most popular posts in 2012 were:

Celebrating Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary
Civilisation’s crisis – Tagore’s last speech
Tagore and the Indian national anthem
Celebrate nature & Tagore the environmental pioneer

My thanks to all who have found my blog posts of interest.

Looking ahead, 2013 is the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you are on Facebook, you may wish to ‘Like’ the Facebook page Rabindranath Tagore: Nobel Prize centenary. Even if you are not on Facebook, you can see the contents of the page.

For now, here is a 50-second audiovisual tribute to celebrate the start of the centenary year and to allow me to wish you a Happy New Year!

Dec 312012
 

Candle image posted by Google India

Sexual violence in India

Over the past two weeks, India’s news has been dominated by the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi while on her way home with her fiancé after going to the cinema. By Western media standards, it is almost a miracle that her real name has not been published. Instead, the Indian media have named her Nirbhaya (fearless one/braveheart), Amanat (after a TV soap opera about a father with seven daughters) or Damini (after the heroine of a hit film who refuses to let a rapist escape justice).

Unfortunately, this was just one example of the violence faced by women in India. Even as the protests mounted, an 18-year-old gang-rape victim committed suicide in Punjab after coming under pressure from police either to come to a financial settlement with her attackers or to marry one of them! According to Russia Today, “Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year in India were against women. However the real figure is thought to be much higher as so many women are reluctant to report attacks to the police.”

Several of our friends and relatives in India have joined the online protests, with some changing their social media profile pictures to a black square or a black circle following news of the death of Nirbhaya/Amanat/Damini on Friday night. On Saturday morning, “RIP Nirbhaya” was the #1 topic on Twitter in India, where 8 of the top ten trending topics were related to it.

Some have been calling for the death penalty for rapists, although there is no evidence that this would discourage rape. Rather, as suggested by a protestor and social worker interviewed by the BBC, it could encourage rapists to kill their victims to ensure that their crime was not reported.

The public outcry has led to a number of analyses of how India treats its women and drew attention to its “rape culture“. A male Indian MP, who is the son of India’s President, dismissed the protestors as “pretty women who were dented and painted” who had “no contact with ground reality”. However, the fierce reaction to his remarks (such as this ironic open letter) obliged him to withdraw them.

The initially muted reactions of senior politicians contrasted sharply with the emotional reactions of the protestors. Perhaps the underlying reason for the former is the challenge of changing attitudes which have been endemic in Indian culture for centuries. For example, this article identified 10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem and the above Al Jazeera discussion explores what it would take to confront India’s ‘culture of rape’.

Tagore’s campaign for women’s emancipation

Tagore was clearly conscious of this and the women in his works are often strong and outspoken, while suffering from tradition. His campaign for women’s emancipation was decades ahead of equivalent thinking in the West. There have been many scholarly analyses of the female characters in his works and some see his legacy regarding women’s role in society as being one of his most important contributions (see, for example, Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy lies in the freedom-seeking women of his fiction).

“Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

As well as being one of the media names for the Delhi gang-rape victim, Damini is the name of the female protagonist in Tagore’s 1916 novella Chaturanga (Broken Ties or, more literally, Quartet). Damini’s role in Chaturanga, in which she represents truth and innocence, has been compared to those of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Stella in Rattigan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. All the female characters in Chaturanga suffer at the hands of men, with two of them committing suicide as a result.

In his novel Jogajog, (Contact), Tagore highlights the issue of marital rape. In his short story Shasthi (Punishment), two brothers work in the fields all day while their wives stay at home to cook, clean and bring up a child. When one of the brothers kills his wife for explaining that there is no food because he hadn’t brought home enough money, the ‘pillar of the village’ (a man) helps them to pass the blame onto the other wife, who is subsequently executed.

In 1936, Tagore campaigned more overtly for women to step out of the precincts of their homes and play a greater role in society. His paper Nari (Women) was part of his campaign, which included speeches and his dance-drama Chitrangada. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 1936 was also the year in which Victoria Ocampo, Tagore’s “distant muse“, co-founded the Argentine Union of Women.

In fact, all three of Tagore’s dance-dramas (ChitrangadaChandalika and Shyama) are centred on female characters who live at the fringes of society – a warrior princess, an untouchable and a courtesan. Dr Sutapa Chaudhuri has written an interesting analysis of the expression of self and female desire in Tagore’s dance-dramas. She provides more detail in her paper on class, caste and gender in Chandalika.

Tagore created a social revolution by pioneering coeducation at his school in Santiniketan. However, parents still resisted allowing their daughters to dance on stage for many years for fear that they would be viewed by society as prostitutes. The criticism of women dressing “provocatively” is perhaps the modern version of this attitude, without daring to challenge the indecency of those men who molest women.

Where the mind is without fear …

Not surprisingly, several commentaries on the Delhi rape have cited Tagore’s poem Where the mind is without fear as being an as-yet unfulfilled dream for women. Some have pointed out that several elected Indian politicians have been charged with rape – a factor which would be a major electoral liability in Western democracies. Yet it seems to be viewed as being acceptable/unavoidable, male behaviour by a patriarchal, Indian society in which the ratio of girls to boys is one of the lowest in the world.

“Rape happens everywhere: it happens inside homes, in families, in neighbourhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages, and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s roles begin to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller — and it is connected to all these things. Just as it is integrally and fundamentally connected to the disregard, and indeed the hatred, for females that is so evident in the killing of female foetuses. For so widespread a crime, band aid solutions are not the answer.” – Urvashi Butalia, The Hindu

Just before Christmas, Valerian Santos wrote to India’s Prime Minister proposing stronger laws to ensure better security for women in India. His son Keenan Santos, together with his friend Reuben Fernandes, was stabbed to death by a mob for taking on a man who had harassed their female friends in Mumbai in October 2011. In addition to the comments from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon above, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for profound change in India in the wake of the gang-rape tragedy.

Of course, India is not the only country in the world where women suffer sexual violence. However, as I write just after the start of 2013 there, it seems to be the only country whose people have found the collective will to begin to tackle the problem. As India’s people, particularly the younger generation, seek a new dawn in attitudes towards women, they (and indeed people of other countries) may find that Tagore’s works could offer inspiration on changing society to empower and respect women.

Nov 152012
 

Background image for the first two poems of The Story of Gitanjali

I realised this morning that I had missed this year’s European Day of Multilingual Blogging, which was actually yesterday. Now in its third year, it’s the brainchild of my friend Antonia Mochan at the European Commission’s UK office. As it’s still Internet week Europe, I hope she will accept this slightly late entry! [Update: She did, awarding this post the prize for the entry with the most languages involved – thanks, Antonia!]

In my previous post, I wrote about the world premiere of the third and final film of our Tagore dance film trilogy: Chitrangada. The first half of the evening was a performance of The Story of Gitanjali . This included poems from Tagore’s English Gitanjali recited in 13 European languages and the corresponding Tagore songs performed by Manini Mukhopadhyay, Sayan Bandyopadhyay and Kaberi Chatterjee, with Asit Ghosh on tabla and Tirthankar Roy on esraj. I narrated and directed the show.

So, for my contribution to the European Day of Multilingual Blogging, here are the poems from that performance.

1 Dutch: Jee Reusens – This is my delight, thus to wait and watch at the wayside – Translation by Victor van Bijlert

2 French: Arlette Schreiber – Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high – Translation by André Gide

3 Polish: Maria Glowacz – Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens. – Translation by Jan Kasprowicz

4 Romanian: Raluca Zaharia – The day is no more – Translation by George Remete

5 Italian: Adriana Opromolla – You came down from your throne and stood at my cottage door. – Translated by Adriana Opromolla

6 German: Konstanze Hanreich – Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. – Translation by Marie Luise Gothein

7 Hungarian: Ágnes Kaszás – Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not. – Translation by Babits Mihály

8 Spanish: Luisa Castellanos – Light, my light, the world-filling light – Translation by Zenobia Camprubí Aymar & Juan Ramón Jiménez

9 Russian: Alexandra Shlyopkina – I am here to sing thee songs. – Translation by J Baltrushaitis

10 Greek: Olga Profili – When my play was with thee I never questioned who thou wert. – Translation by Olga Profili

11 Swedish: Sofie Gardestedt – Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full. – Translation by Andrea Butenschön

12 Czech: Josef Schwarz – I know not how thou singest, my master! – Translation by Dušan Zbavitel

13 English: Prajña Paramita – When I go from hence – Version by Rabindranath Tagore

Oct 012012
 

As you will have realised, last Sunday was the world premiere of Chitrangada in Brussels. The English-subtitled version of the film is now available worldwide via the Internet. Before midnight on Sunday, 28 October, if you watch it or host a screening of it for friends or for people in your area, you can be part of its global premiere. If you can watch the trailer above, you have everything you need to be part of the global premiere: basically a screen and an Internet connection.

Singers and musicians from Santiniketan
(Photo: Enrique Nicanor)

At the start of the evening, the audience was greeted with a glass of champagne, courtesy of a well-wisher. Thanks to the Indian Embassy in Brussels, the audience was able to see two Tagore exhibitions from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. One exhibition was of framed, digital prints of some of Tagore’s paintings. The other exhibition comprised a series of panels describing Tagore’s travels.

The evening was introduced by our guest of honour, His Excellency Shri Dinkar Khullar, the Indian Ambassador.

Obhi narrating The Story of Gitanjali
(Photo: Enrique Nicanor)

Our multilingual performance of The Story of Gitanjaliexplained how Tagore came to write the English Gitanjali – the collection of English poems which led to his international fame and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Each of the thirteen poems were recited in a different language, while the Tagore songs corresponding to most of them were performed by a team of singers and musicians from Santiniketan. For the cast and their biographies, please see here.

Almost all the actors who read poems from the Gitanjali in their native languages.
(Photo: Ekaterina Tarliouk)

The talent on the stage was complemented by a large-screen display above the singers and musicians for the subtitles. You can get an idea of the setting from this photo.

View of the stage with the on-screen subtitles
(Photo: Enrique Nicanor)

Many in the audience were apparently inspired by the show to read Tagore’s poetry. One of them, Sandeep Kalathimekkad, was even moved to write a poem as he was watching the show – he kindly gave me the poem on a slip of paper during the interval. The Story of Gitanjali was filmed. So you will have a chance to see it in due course, together with the subtitles.

After the interval, the world premiere of Chitrangada was introduced by Her Excellency Ambassador Ismat Jahan of Bangladesh. Tagore is a national icon in both India and Bangladesh, whose national anthems are both Tagore songs. Ambassador Jahan, who is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, introduced the film as being part of Tagore’s campaign for women’s emancipation.

Many people came up to congratulate us about the film as well. Even before we had got home after the premiere, a post by Sophie H on Facebook summarised the feedback we have had ever since about the evening: “Thanks to Obhi Chatterjee and Kaberi Chatterjee for an amazing evening! The first part, with the poems in different languages was beautiful, and the second part, the movie, was excellent! Such a pleasure! I also discovered (a small piece ) of the art of Tagore. Thank you!”

Aug 132012
 

Publicity photo for the Gold Hall, Square Brussels

The Story of Gitanjali may not be as elaborate as the opening ceremony of the Olympics. However, it does need careful preparation and planning. Apart from the audience in the Gold Hall of the Square Brussels, where we will be on stage, we also need to keep in mind those who will be watching it on screens elsewhere.

On Thursday, I visited the Gold Hall with the team which will be filming the show. It’s quite a large auditorium which is part of a complex which was built in 1957, at the same time as the iconic Brussels Atomium. The complex used to be known as the Palais des Congrés but was extensively renovated a few years ago. It reopened in 2009, since when it has been called the Square Brussels. The annual Magritte Awards ceremony (the Belgian equivalent of the French César Awards and the American Academy Awards) is held in the same hall.

The foyers we will be using for the charity gala premiere have original murals by the Belgian surrealist painters Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Courtesy of the Indian Embassy in Brussels, we should have two exhibitions in the foyers, one on Tagore and the Romance of Travel and the other of digital prints of some of Tagore’s paintings.

The Story of Gitanjali begins with the above poem. I haven’t yet decided which language it will be recited in – that will depend on the actors. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been looking for actors in Brussels who could each recite one of the 13 poems in a different European language. Several actors have come forward, particularly thanks to our friend Lilian Eilers and the English language theatre groups in Brussels, as well as my colleagues Béla Dajka and Stephanie Mitchell.

The languages and actors confirmed so far are French (Arlette Schreiber, a leading actress with the Belgian National Theatre for many years) and English (Prajna Paramita, who recently performed as Cleopatra in a production of Anthony & Cleopatra). Both already knew Tagore’s poems. I’ve also heard from/about Czech, Danish, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Spanish actors.

The 11 songs in The Story of Gitanjali will be performed by a small team of singers and musicians. The singers will be Manini Mukhopadhyay, Sayan Bandopadhyay and Kaberi.

Manini is one of the top Bengali female vocalists in this style (known as Rabindrasangeet). She sang the title roles in all three of our film versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas, including Chitrangada. You can hear her singing in the clip from Shyama on the right of this page.

Sayan is a rising male vocalist in this style. Has will be singing at a concert on 22 August at the 1,100-seat Rabindra Sadan hall in Kolkata. He is also the grandson of Professor Somendranath Bandopadhyay, the internationally recognised authority on Tagore who has been our mentor throughout the Tagore dance film trilogy project.

In parallel with this, I will need to prepare what will be projected on the screen above the singers and musicians, including the English and French subtitles of whatever is happening on stage. This draws on our experience of using a screen to provide a virtual set at London’s Purcell Room when Kaberi was giving a solo Manipuri performance there, as well as the technique we used to project English and Arabic subtitles for the  tour of Shyama in Egypt with Kaberi and her team.

Apr 032012
 

Kaberi and me just after the wedding ceremony

A couple of weeks ago, Kaberi and I were celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary. I was going to post a photo from the wedding on Facebook to mark the occasion when I realised that we didn’t have any of the wedding photos uploaded. In fact, we didn’t have any digital photos from the wedding.

It then came back to me that we only had a small memory stick in the video camera at the time of the wedding on which we could take a handful of low resolution digital photos. We got our first digital camera at the end of 2002, almost a year after the wedding: a 2 megapixel Sony Cybershot DSC U20. Our next one came the following year, a 3.2 megapixel digital SLR – the Minolta Dimage Z1 . This took over from the 35mm Minolta X-700 SLR camera I’d been using since my father gave it to me as a birthday present in 1985.

Since then, we have only taken digital photos. We now use an 8 megapixel Sony Cybershot T200 and a 10 megapixel Samsung GX10, which I used, for example, for the still photographs I took while we were filming Chandalika and Chitrangada. Of course, now we’re using both less often than before as we usually have our iPhones with us, which can film high definition video as well.

Nowadays, if you go to a wedding or any other event, there are people all around snapping away or taking video, often on their mobile phones. Some weddings have even become international phenomena as a result of people sharing the images online, such as the JV Wedding Entrance video.

Nine years ago, a lot of things did not exist which we and hundreds of millions of people around the world take for granted today, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Skype. Combined with the falling cost of taking, editing and storing digital photos and videos, these sharing platforms have transformed the world we live in.

In our case, Kaberi and I first started to explore the possibilities of digital filmmaking using our home computer in 2005, when Kaberi was completing her PhD thesis on the dance influences of Rabindranath Tagore. One of her supervisors suggested that, since the topic was dance, it would be useful to include some kind of video in the thesis to illustrate this.

This led us to put together a 40-minute documentary incorporating material from videos of her own past performances and performances from other dance styles, linked with a narrative based on her thesis. A DVD with the documentary, edited in iMovie and authored using iDVD, was included in her final PhD submission.

At about the same time, we realised that few international arts centres were aware of the dance styles in which Kaberi has specialised: Manipuri and Tagore dance. Kaberi would need a similar DVD to persuade them both about the styles themselves and about her dance skills.

First, we used our video camera and my father’s one to film a Manipuri dance performance she gave at the Durga Puja in Bremen. I thought a short, film-style trailer would be useful both to introduce Manipuri dance to people who had not come across it and to encourage people to watch the 15-minute video of the performance on the DVD. In parallel, we would need to improve Kaberi’s website, to which the trailer and DVD would refer people.

After preparing a script for a 1-minute trailer, we hired some stage lights and used a roll of black paper to create a “studio” in the living room of our apartment. Within limited space and without a very versatile tripod, we filmed some sequences and also shot some still photographs, which were to be added to the home page of Kaberi’s website.

Here is the English version of the trailer, for which some friends helped us to create French, German, Italian and Spanish versions.

The promotional DVD led to higher profile performances in Europe (at London’s Nehru Centre in January 2006, the Museum of Asian Arts in Nice in May 2006 and London’s Purcell Room in June 2006). While Kaberi was performing at the Nehru Centre, I noticed a poster about a short film competition organised by the Satyajit Ray Foundation. The theme was ‘the experience of Asians’ and the maximum duration was 25 minutes.

It occurred to me that many Asians migrate to the West and I was curious to see how easy it would be to use iMovie to put together such a film. Kaberi’s experience, which I had been watching at first hand for the previous three years, was perhaps a more extreme example than most: after our marriage, she had left behind a promising dance career in India to join me in Europe, where she was once more unknown.

Kaberi and I were also often being asked how we met. So I decided to make a short film called Adapting which focused on Kaberi’s experience and used video material we had been shooting since we first met. I reviewed the material we had, which included a sequence which Kaberi had filmed to try to explain to her parents what a supermarket is, and developed a script with a voiceover linking a selection of clips from the material.

We filmed some additional sequences, such as showing Kaberi shopping in London for Indian food ingredients, and so on. We also filmed a sequence with three European friends who had travelled to India for our wedding: Beatriz, Gemma and Vincent.

Originally, I had invited them so that we could film a sequence where Kaberi and I were telling them the story of how we met. However, by the time they arrived, I had realised that this would not look very interesting and persuaded them to do some role playing instead. You can see the result towards the end of this 8-minute excerpt from Adapting.

As you can imagine, we all had a lot of fun filming the sequence with Beatriz, Gemma and Vincent. I had given them two alternative scenarios, both of which we filmed. The first was where Vincent, the prospective groom, and Beatriz, the prospective bride, fell immediately in love at first sight and Gemma, the chaperone, was left to keep them apart. The second was where Vincent and Beatriz took an instant dislike to each other, so that they asked each other the most aggressive questions.

The latter version was the one which I kept in the film. I should mention that, in reality, Vincent and Beatriz are husband and wife. At the time, Beatriz was in the early stages of expecting their first baby, which added a certain relevance to the discussion about children. The dialogue was completely improvised, based on my outline of how each of their characters should behave.

Towards the end of the editing process, our then iMac was struggling to cope with all the processing involved and we had to buy a new, faster iMac. Adapting didn’t win anything in the competition but it was a good way of exploring what we could do on our computers.

I’d intended to finish Adapting in time for our third wedding anniversary, so that it could be my anniversary present to Kaberi. However, I had to find another present as it took me a lot longer to edit than I had imagined! Still, when we showed it to about forty of our friends the following month, several were quite moved by it.

Kaberi’s performance as part of the Bahar Festival in London in June 2006 was originally supposed to be on the 30m-wide stage of the Queen Elisabeth Hall. It was going to be a challenge for Kaberi to fill such a wide stage on her own. So I used Keynote to create a dynamic virtual set for her.

We hired a high definition camera to film some sequences and used them as part of an introduction to Manipuri dance which I presented while she was off-stage doing a dress change. The festival eventually took place in the Purcell Room since the competition from the World Cup was quite intense! We put the iMac on a corner of the stage so that I could see its presenter disply and control it using its remote control. The output from the iMac allowed us to project the virtual set onto a screen at the back of the stage.

For the rest of that summer, I was composing and recording the music for Kaberi’s Indian dance workout. The idea of making such a workout DVD came to Kaberi after a friend recommended that she could keep fit using fitness videos. She realised that a lot of the movements were similar to exercises and movements she knew from Indian dance.

The workout DVD has probably been the most technically demanding project we have done up to now because we wanted to create a fully interactive project. Kaberi first had to design the overall workout and break it down into sections. We studied a range of different workout DVDs to see how they had been structured and presented.

The music had to fit the sections and also had to be the right pace for the movements. This was why the easiest solution was for me to compose and perform the instrumental music specially for the workout, based on Indian classical themes and on songs by Tagore. Our living room became a recording studio.

We arranged to film the workout DVD over a weekend with six of Kaberi’s dance students. We cleared all the furniture from our living room and they came for rehearsals every evening for the five days before we filmed it. Since it would otherwise be quite late by the time everyone got home, each evening, Kaberi prepared an Indian dinner for all of us. After the others left, we still had to record Kaberi’s commentary over the music.

We were very lucky with the weather for the two days we were filming the workout. It was an intense schedule but the really nice people in the team helped to create a great atmosphere. Again, we hired a high definition camera over that weekend.

This trailer for the workout gives you an idea of the end result.

In preparing to edit the workout, I realised that I had outgrown iMovie and needed to upgrade to Final Cut Studio to achieve such a technically complex project. At about the same time, Kaberi went to India to collect her PhD. Meanwhile, YouTube was rising in popularity, having been founded in February 2005, and Google bought it in October 2006.

By the time Kaberi returned to Europe, she had had another idea. Initially, it had been to stage a performance of Tagore’s dance-drama Shyama in London with a team of dancers, singers and musicians from Santinketan. However, having grown up with my parents organising shows like this, I knew that this was going to take several months to prepare and, if it was to be a large team from India, would probably need to be part of a European tour.

It seemed to me less risky to make a film version of Shyama instead and use it both to create a permanent record and then use the internet and subtitling to allow people all over the world to see it. In any case, the first step was to film it.

We finally decided to go ahead with the project in November 2006. It was clear that we would not finish the workout before travelling to India to film Shyama. The plan was for Kaberi and the team to rehearse for it in Santiniketan in January 2007 and we would record and film it during seven days in early February 2007 at the main theatre there.

We looked into the costs of hiring two high definition cameras in India but discovered that each camera would come with a minder, a cameraman, a sound recordist and a sound man with a boom microphone. They would have to travel from Kolkata the day before filming began and return the day after filming ended. We didn’t need the sound to be recorded live since we were recording the music first. Since this team would have to stay in a hotel for four nights, and we would then need to hire another camera back in Europe to edit the material.

In the end, we bought two, small high definition cameras from the US (so that they were filming in NTSC, which is easier to convert to the film frame rate of 24 frames per second than using the European and Indian PAL standard). These were portable enough for us to carry with us to and from India, together with a laptop, on which we did the sound recording.

By the time we came back to Europe, I had all the material from Shyama and all the material from Kaberi’s Indian dance workout to edit, in between my daily work, which was and is quite demanding. As a result, the process of editing both projects took over a year.

A test screening of the workout in autumn 2007 revealed that people would need a slower explanation of the movements as they were too difficult to grasp at the normal speed of the workout. So we used our own video cameras to film some additional sequences in which Kaberi explained each movement in slow motion. Putting this onto a DVD so that it was fully interactive meant I had to learn how to program a DVD using DVD Studio Pro.

Meanwhile, I realised that we would have to translate Shyama from scratch as it hadn’t been translated before. My father did the initial translation, which Kaberi and I refined to match the on-screen movements of the dancers.

Test screenings of Shyama led to the addition of explanations of the characters at the beginning and captions during the film to explain where the action is taking place. They also led to a number of friends volunteering to translate our English subtitles into their own languages.

Kaberi’s Indian dance workout was finally launched on DVD in July 2008, with the double soundtrack album being released online. Shyama had its world première at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in May 2009.

We added the various language versions to the DVD of Shyama by September 2009. In parallel, we filmed two episodes of what should ultimately be an 8-part podcast series about Shyama and Tagore. Each episode requires a lot of background research, which is the main reason why we haven’t gone beyond part 2 yet.

Over summer 2010, at fairly short notice, we filmed three episodes of Kaberi’s Indian cooking a web series published on Facebook. Only the first of these has been published so far. The other two are still in the pipeline!

In October 2010, we accompanied Shyama to the Ourense Film Festival for its Spanish première. This was about the time when I started this blog. It was also when we started thinking about making film versions of Tagore’s other two dance-dramas, Chandalika and Chitrangada, to complete the Tagore dance film trilogy to mark Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary.

The première of Chandalika was in May 2011 in Stratford-upon-Avon, courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

The tour of Shyama in Egypt in January 2012 with Kaberi and her team from Santiniketan perhaps marks the start of the next phase of our adventure. Of course, we still have to launch Chitrangada (probably in September 2012) before this phase is complete. Nonetheless, we do hope to be able to get back to our friends, who haven’t really seen us for the past five years thanks to all of these projects!

While our ideas and projects have become more and more ambitious, the possibilities offered by the digital revolution have accelerated. These projects have brought us many new friends around the world, especially through Facebook and Twitter.

Looking back over the past nine years reminds us how much the world has evolved. A whole generation has been growing up without knowing what the world was like before the internet, a feeling eloquently presented by Piotr Czerski in his article ‘We, the web kids‘. Even Kaberi and I have forgotten what that world was like, that we couldn’t speak to friends and relatives around the world for free and that we didn’t always avoid staying at hotels without wifi. As our friend Sheri Candler says, people are having to find their digital mindset.

Our creative projects have allowed Kaberi and me to work together very closely on a subject in which we have a passionate interest: Rabindranath Tagore and particularly the dance form he created. None of it would have been worth the effort if Kaberi hadn’t been the amazing, gentle, loving, modest but extremely talented person she is.

It has been a wonderful nine years … and there seems to be even better to come!

Dec 112011
 

Inner Eye’s Tagore dance film trilogy with Kaberi Chatterjee in the title roles

Five years after starting to prepare filming Shyama, we are now close to completing Chitrangada, the third and final feature film in our trilogy of authentic versions of Tagore’s dance-dramas (the other two being Chandalika and Shyama). As a result of making these films and translating Tagore’s texts for their subtitles, I have now had the opportunity to explore all three dance-dramas intensively and from a western perspective. This has made me realise that they are no less worthy of the international stage than classical western ballet or opera. Perhaps it’s time for a new dawn in the world of ballet and opera to come from the East … .

Up to now, few outside the Bengali diaspora have been aware of Tagore’s dance-dramas, even though they attract large Bengali audiences whenever they are staged and most of their songs are well-known to Bengalis. This is perhaps because the dance-dramas have not been translated before and their performances outside India and Bangladesh tend to be one-off events aimed at Bengali-speaking communities. As a result, even among those around the world who are aware of Tagore’s literary genius but who do not understand Bengali (and perhaps the children of Bengali parents brought up in non-Bengali environments), Tagore’s dance-dramas might appear to be little more than a quaint experiment in his later years.

In reality, the dance-dramas are probably the most accomplished works created by Tagore, combining his poetry with music, drama and the semi-classical dance form he created. The plots of all three were based on legends which Tagore adapted to express his humanist message about powerful, timeless and universal themes: the hurt inflicted on people by social prejudice, the difficulties of reconciling public image with private life and the sacrifices people are prepared to make for love. Kaberi’s forthcoming book ‘Tagore Dance’, based on her PhD research, reveals the original creation of the Tagore dance form. Kaberi has made the introduction to her book available as a free download from her website.

In the case of Chitrangada, which is based on an episode from the epic Mahabharata, Tagore had written a play based on the same episode almost 50 years earlier. It was called Chitra, which you can read in the Internet archive. It’s not clear exactly when Tagore wrote Chitra: there are online versions with the dates 1892 and 1896 but, according to the preface of the 1913 edition printed in English by the India Society, it was written ‘about twenty five years ago’, ie, in about 1888.

Incidentally, thanks to Dr Asok Chaudhuri, I learned that the Tagore notebook from autumn 1928 which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on Tuesday includes the lyrics of two songs which were later included by Tagore in Chitrangada.

In recent years, opera houses around the world have been equipped to show subtitles of operas being performed in their original language, whether above the stage or on the backs of seats. We will be using the subtitles from our film version of Shyama (in English and, we hope, Arabic) when Kaberi and her team from Santiniketan perform Shyama live next month in Egypt, including at the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses.

Through the Tagore dance film trilogy and its subtitles, apart from preserving Tagore’s original concept, we would like to ensure that Tagore’s dance-dramas join Western operas and ballet on the world stage. We have decided to postpone the release of Chitrangada until around 7 May 2012, the end of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary year. This is to allow more time to arrange its gala charity world première in a way which brings Tagore and his dance-dramas to the attention of dance and opera lovers around the world.

If you would like to help us, please comment below or post on the wall of the Facebook page of the Tagore dance film trilogy. Your help could take one or more of a variety of forms:

  • telling your friends about Tagore, the dance-dramas and the films;
  • downloading the introduction to Kaberi’s book Tagore Dance and joining the mailing list for news about it (see button below);
  • hosting a screening of one or more of the films; translating the subtitles into more languages;
  • helping out at the gala charity world première of Chitrangada;
  • persuading a local hall with a digital projector to join a global première by screening the (live) introduction from the main gala charity event followed by Chitrangada subtitled in the local language;
  • recommending potential sponsors for the première, including the online global promotion and distribution of the films;
  • moral support by liking this post and/or the Facebook pages of the trilogy and each of the films;
  • any other help or advice you would like to offer.
Nov 132010
 

Shyama releases Bojroshen

In case you don’t know, I’m about to make my second and third feature films back-to-back. Like the first film (Shyama), they are ‘dance-dramas’ by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

We will be filming in Tagore’s home town of Santiniketan, India, at the university set up by him. In both of the films, Kaberi will be dancing the title role, as she did in Shyama.

UNESCO will be celebrating Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary next year, although the celebrations started in May this year. Last month, the Spanish version of Shyama had its premiere at the Ourense Film Festival, Galicia, as part of a special section dedicated to Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary.

Kaberi also performed at different events during the week. See my blog post Shyama at the Ourense Film Festival for more details, including links to the extensive press coverage of our activities during the festival.

There’s a 2-minute video explaining the project on its crowdfunding campaign page: http://trilogy.fundbreak.co.uk . You’ll find rewards ranging from updates and digital downloads of all three films to a one-to-one dance lesson with Kaberi via Skype and your name in the end credits of the films. To become a supporter, the minimum pledge is just £1 (US$1.61 / €1.18 / Rs72).

If you could circulate the link to your various networks, that would be very helpful. We have to reach our ‘seed money’ funding goal of £5,000 by 17 November at midday UK time, to avoid all the pledges made by then going back to the supporters. We still have quite a long way to go!

You may be interested to read these two articles about the trilogy. ‘Embracing the Recognition Economy‘ in Digital Cinema Report focuses on the business model behind the trilogy. ‘Dance film trilogy highlights Tagore’s humanist message‘ in the Jim Luce Stewardship Report explores the humanism underlying these three works by Tagore.

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